Counter seating along the wall of the restaurant gives you a view of activities at Dolores Park.

The Lee Brothers (Dennis, Daniel, and David) made a name for themselves when they opened Namu in the Richmond District of San Francisco, a fancy and quaint Korean-style restaurant in the midst of ethnic spots in the residential area of the city.

Riding on their popularity, they decided to open another location focusing on grilled food and small plates in the Mission. Earlier this year, they decided to close the original Namu and focus all their attention to their latest baby, Namu Gaji, which opened a few months ago to rave reviews.

Namu Gaji anchors one end of the gourmet corridor on 18th Street populated with Bi-Rite Creamery next door, Bi-Rite Grocery Store, Delfina (and its pizzeria), and Tartine Bakery. And the kitchen, headed by Chef Dennis Lee, produces quality dishes, some brought over from his Namu menu.

I dined recently with my fried-food loving foodie friend Sandy of the delectable Foodhoe’s Foraging. Sandy has been to the original Namu and is a fan of Chef Lee’s modern interpretation of Korean ingredients.

Gamja fries ($11) with short ribs, fries, and topped with kewpie, teriyaki, gojuchang, and kim chee relish

I tease that Sandy is a deep-fried food lover because, despite my aversion to deep-fried foods, she eagerly ordered a couple of deep-fried dishes, including the gamja fries ($11) from the happy hour menu. Made with bits of short ribs mixed with French fries, this dish could easily be the Korean version of poutine.

Another fried dish was a starter of uni tempura ($12) with shiso, lemon, seasonal vegetables (squash blossoms), and ginger tsuyu. I’m a fan of uni, so I tried a fried piece that was wrapped with the shiso leaf before frying, and all I tasted was fried vegetables. The creamy uni (sea urchin) with taste of the ocean was barely noticeable, overwhelmed instead by the salty flavor of the fried veggies.

I feel Lee shines in dishes that’s focused on flavor not texture, and a good example is the richly flavored beef tongue ($20), slowly braised and then quickly grilled served on a cedar plank with a dust of spicy powder. My Mom used to make beef tongue when I was younger, and Namu Gaji’s version mirrored the deep intense beef flavor with the tender texture of the tongue that I remember.

Another winner was the dumplings ($14), filled with shiitake mushrooms in a savory dashi broth. The mushroom flavor shined through and made each dumpling satisfying and filling.

A tray of complimentary banchan came to our table with fresh bean sprouts, greens and the ubiquitous kim chee

On the opposite end, a simple soba noodle salad (called the bibim, $10) was a refreshing bowl of cucumber, Napa cabbage, pinenuts, kim chee all dressed in a light vinagrette or traditional Korean soba sauce known as momil kook soo.

Some dishes were simple but not astonishing, like the octopus ($14) with peas, spring onion, fried garlic, and gochujang sauce. Or the dessert of shaved ice, which despite my warning to Sandy because I’ve eaten years of shaved ice in Hawaii, was underwhelming even though it was doctored up with black sesame brittle and fresh strawberries.

Dining at Namu Gaji is best when you’re a smart consumer. That means knowing what to order and asking your server about the portion sizes. For example, there’s a whole section called “Grill” where all the plates are $20, but the portion sizes look like tapas or appetizers. The beef tongue, even though it had fantastic flavor, was $20 for five one-inch cubes of tongue.

We ordered the asparagus with onsen egg that was also $20 and what came to the table could only fairly be described as a mini salad, with slivers of asparagus with a few strips of duck ham and one poached egg on top. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so offensive if the plate weren’t so huge, emphasizing the small portion in the center.

The dumplings and bibim salad are definitely worth their respective prices, but wade carefully into any dishes above $20.

Despite the price/portion size issue, the Lee Brothers have created an upscale Korean-style bar serving up refined dishes showcasing California’s seasonal ingredients.

Rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps

 

 

Namu Gaji, 499 Dolores St. (at 18th), San Francisco. PH: 415.431.6268 Open happy hour, Tues.–Sun., 5–6 p.m.; and dinner, Tues.–Sun., 6–11 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, no reservations. namusf.com

Namu Gaji on Urbanspoon

Cool lighting (left) and beer served in a mason jar (right)

Uni tempura with squash blossoms (top) and shiitake dumplings in dashi broth (bottom)

Sandy snapping shots with her fancy Lytro camera. Everyone kept asking her about it during dinner.

Pricey $20 dishes included asparagus with onsen egg (top) and beef tongue (bottom)

Bibim salad ($10) with soba noodles, momil kook soo, cucumber, lettuce, pine nuts, and kim chee

Chef's counter gives you a view of the grilling station

Strawberry shaved ice ($5) with sesame brittle and fresh strawberries

Check out Foodhoe’s take on our dinner at Namu Gaji, including her interactive Lytro photos, at her post here.

4 Responses to Styling Korean Dishes in Hip Mission

  1. Carolyn Jung says:

    Korean-version of poutine? OMG! I’m sold just with that one description. ;)

  2. daniel says:

    Ben, we dined at the original Namu right before they moved for the very first time. Yet we were underwhelmed by our experience. You were spot on when you said one needs to know what to order. We felt that their pricing/proportion ratio is really out of whack. Most of the items we ordered were too pricey for what we got. The only one that was truly tasty and worth reordering was the shiitake dumplings. When we told the waitress our opinions during dinner, she seemed surprised and rather unhappy and never came back to talk to us again. It was someone else who gave us the check. I guess they only wanna hear compliments.

    • Ben Ben says:

      Daniel, sometimes I think at popular restaurants the servers are so used to people giving compliments, they’re probably thrown when you give honest feedback so they don’t know how to react. But I feel the best reaction is to thank guests for the honesty and say they’ll relay the comments to the chef. I think it’s good that you said something because maybe if more people did, they might address the portion-price issue for some dishes instead of people avoiding ordering those dishes.

  3. foodhoe says:

    Beautiful photos, the octopus shot at top is making me hungry! I loved those fries but couldn’t do them justice since I wanted to sample a lot of dishes and hence didn’t inhale the entire plate… A fun dinner, but next time I’ll save room to explore dessert options next door or down the street

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